Mind Over Matter

The most astonishing scene in Alison Winter’s book takes place in the Calcutta Native Hospital in 1846. All the employees, right down to the cook, have been taught to “mesmerize” patients to the point where they are in a state of complete anesthesia. (To mesmerize may be to hypnotize, a question to which I’ll return.) A man is lying on his back. The mesmerizer sits at his head behind him, leaning over, making almost face-to-face contact, his right hand reaching down to the pit of the man’s stomach, his left hand making passes close to the face, over and over again, for hours, sometimes for six hours a day.

The patient goes into a deeper and deeper sleep. He has a horrible tumor on the scrotum, common enough in India at that time, in which liquid fills the membrane surrounding the testicle. When the patient seems completely unconscious, after a process that may last several days, he is tested by being touched with a red-hot coal. If he remains oblivious, the Scottish surgeon is summoned, one James Esdaile, who had taught himself mesmeric anesthesia by reading a pamphlet from England, and then discovered that the hospital servants could do the tedious mesmeric work as well as he could. Esdaile enters, in sea boots and a sou’wester, to keep out the blood. He slices off the tumorous scrotum. He and his Indian assistants tie up the veins. In one case the patient weighs 114 pounds after the operation; beside him is a tumor weighing 103.

For eight months during 1846, Esdaile performed seventy-three “painless surgical operations” of various kinds on mesmerized Indians, including the occasional amputation, or operation for cataracts, but most commonly the removal of scrotal tumors. All these events were seen by witnesses. Ten such “treatments” were formally observed by a government committee of three doctors and three laymen, who judged most of them to be both painless and successful.

There are two ways to talk about such events: we can say what we may think was going on, or we can describe what actors themselves said was going on. Winter talks their language, and I will try to do so, too. To begin with, Esdaile thought of himself as using mesmerism, or animal magnetism. Not hypnotism. Alison Winter has very little to say about hypnotism. The practice and the word “hypnotism” (from the Greek hupnos, “sleep”), in the beginning, “neurohypnotism,” were created by another Scottish surgeon, James Braid, working in Manchester. Braid watched a demonstration of mesmerism in 1841, tried it out, and in the mid-1840s developed his own ideas. He thought he could strip away all the nonsense surrounding mesmerism and systematically produce its hypnotic effects. Alan Gauld, the author of a veritable encyclopedia of hypnotism, carefully distinguishes between mesmerism and hypnotism as practiced by Braid and those who came after him. He takes it to be an open question whether the same effects were being observed in both forms of “putting someone to sleep.”1

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